Babbitt Summary and Analysis of Chapters XV-XVIII

Chapter XV:

Despite Babbitt's fame as an orator, he and Myra do not achieve the social advancement that they believe they deserve. At a dinner for the State University class of 1896, Babbitt tries desperately to win the favor of Mr. McKelvey, who represents the apex of the Zenith social hierarchy. After a few invitations, McKelvey agrees to have dinner at the Babbitts' home.

After rescheduling the dinner, the McKelveys arrive late to the house, where several other guests (including an oculist, a lawyer, and Howard Littlefield) have gathered. Despite his energetic attempts, Babbitt cannot launch the dinner conversation, and the evening is laborious and "without soul" (p. 178). The McKelveys leave early, casually suggesting that they meet for lunch sometime. The Babbitts are extremely disappointed with the dinner, but they are further disappointed later when the McKelveys do not invite them over for a meal, even when they host a party for Sir Gerald Doak. Babbitt is depressed and embittered, yet he finds himself in the position of snubbing Ed Overbrook, who is socially inferior to Babbitt, in a way that directly parallels the behavior of the McKelveys.

Chapter XVI:

Following a service at the Chatham Road Presbyterian church, Reverend John Jennison Drew invites Babbitt into his office with Chum Frink and William Eathorne. He asks them to devise a plan to make money for the Sunday School in order to make it the largest in Zenith. Babbitt is not interested in any of the truly pious aspects of religion, and he takes this opportunity to turn it fully into a business ("Christianity Incorporated" [p. 191]) by consulting practical Sunday School journals and learning tips on scouting and signing up prospects.

Chapter XVII:

At the mansion of William Eathorne, where a Sunday School Advisory Committee meeting is being held, Babbitt is admiringly and reverently overwhelmed by the wealthy extravagance of Eathorne's lifestyle. As a money-making tactic, Babbitt proposes that the school be divided into four armies, with everyone being assigned a military rank, in order to motivate people to work harder. He also suggests that the school hire a "real paid press-agent" (p. 196), and they eventually decide on Kenneth Scott, a reporter for the Advocate-Times. When Babbitt has Kenneth at his house for dinner, Kenneth and Verona discover that they share a passion for politics, and they spend the entire evening discussing their ideas.

When Babbitt is unsuccessful at enticing Eathorne to have dinner at the Babbitts' home, he convinces Dr. Drew to host a dinner, knowing that Earthorne "would not refuse his own pastor" (p. 200). At the dinner, Babbitt and Eathorne become friends and join forces in unethical financial transactions.

Chapter XVIII:

Despite Verona's protests that she and Kenneth Escott are "just good friends" (p. 203), Babbitt remains hopeful of their alliance and tries to unite them. He is worried about Ted, however, who lacks educational and professional direction and spends far too much time with Eunice Littlefield, whose sexiness and youthful liberation make Babbitt uneasy.

Ted hosts a party for the senior class at the Babbitt household. When Howard Littlefield arrives to find Eunice dancing close with Ted, he tears Eunice from the party, resulting in months of "coolness between the Babbitts and the Littlefields" (p. 208).

When Myra's parents move to a boarding house, Babbitt's mother comes for a three-week visit along with Babbitt's half-brother and the family, and Babbitt is suddenly "sick of it" (p. 211) again. While bedridden from a bout of food poisoning, he reflects on the mechanical nature of his business, his religion, and his life, and though he decides that he will not go to work anymore, he returns the very next day.


In Chapter XV, Lewis establishes a satiric parallel that is, in effect, so blatantly mocking that it almost overrides the novel's standard of realism. The fact that Babbitt now worships the McKelveys with their wealth and influence (whereas he used to criticize and resent them) indicates that his morals and values have undergone a change. He sticks by Charles McKelvey at the reunion dinner, feeling "slight and adoring" (p. 174) at his side. After he tosses George a quick and empty compliment about his recent speeches, "Babbitt would have followed him through fire" (p. 175). This attitude lies in sharp contrast with the one that Babbitt expressed to Myra at the beginning of the novel, when they discussed "Charley McKelvey and all that booze-hoising set of his." Babbitt once suggested that McKelvey cares so much about appearances that he buys nice dress suits--but "'hasn't got a decent set of underwear'' (p. 21). The greatest irony centers around Babbitt's original assertion that he "wouldn't want to go there with dinner with that gang of, of highbinders'" (p. 21), because he now spends the entire reunion heartily attempting to charm McKelvey into inviting him. This change indicates that, with his recent "fame," Babbitt has shed some of this resentful insecurity beside those who are more prosperous than he is and that he now sees himself as capable of entrance into their ivory towers. This change also indicates Lewis's skillful critique of people like Babbitt. The irony here is vast and nuanced in that it requires the conjunction of two very distant moments in the novel.

Lewis's next satirical brushstroke, however, is an example of a two-part character condemnation that occurs in quick succession. Lewis draws the parallels between the dinner with the McKelveys and the dinner with the Overbrooks in a way that borders on heavy-handed and unartistic. He presents a scenario where one socially superior couple (the McKelveys) tolerates and then snubs a socially inferior couple (the Babbitts), and then he creates a virtually identical situation between the Babbitts and the Overbrooks that occurs immediately afterwards. Lewis describes the pathetic hopefulness of both inferior couples as they await an invitation and their crestfallen resentment when this invitation never comes. In order to be sure that the reader has not possibly missed this parallel, both sections end with the sentence, "They did not speak of the [McKelveys/Babbitts] again" (p. 181). Of course, this is not only a merciless criticism of the boot-kissing, social-climbing Babbitts and Overbrooks, but also a negative portrayal of a society that creates such a hierarchy of social class.

Lewis then turns his criticism to the entirely unreligious religion in Zenith (and much of post-war American) society. The first sentence on this topic alerts the reader to the hypocrisy that will pervade not only Babbitt's personal experience of religion, but also the institution as it exists in Zenith: "Nothing gave Babbitt more purification and publicity than his labors for the Sunday School" (p. 185). Here, Lewis ironically joins and almost equates the concepts of purification and publicity, which clearly are intended to contrast sharply--and which often obstruct each other. There is nothing pure or purifying about publicity as it occurs in this novel. In fact, publicity has emerged as a contaminating force that is closely related to a lack of moral and professional integrity. At the outset, we are informed that Babbitt's devotion is about to suffer a serious attack.

Lewis describes Babbitt's rudimentary and ill-considered version of religion in the scene where he tries to convince himself that he will not go to Hell. In fact, his religion is "rarely pondered" (p. 188). For Babbitt, religion becomes not directly about God or spirituality but about business and money making. Reverend Drew's two honorary degrees and editorials explaining "The Dollars and Sense Value of Christianity" subject him to the same unfavorable scrutiny, yet Babbitt devises a plan to initiate "a real virile hustling religion. Sort of Christianity Incorporated" (p. 191). He cannot stay awake in Sunday School classes, and he is clueless about what happens between the Bible's covers, but he has a brilliant plan to completely and shamelessly commercialize an institution that ought to bear no resemblance to a real estate company and that should be free from Babbitt's scheming salesmanship. Religion in Zenith is no less polluted by social ills than by the broader social patterns of business and politics.